New Milford, environmental groups ask for stricter permit for Candlewood Solar project

January 18, 2019 GMT

NEW MILFORD — The town is again trying to stop a controversial solar project on Candlewood Mountain, this time by asking the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to use a stricter permitting process.

Town officials filed a petition with DEEP on Thursday, asking Commissioner-designate Katie Dykes to require Candlewood Solar to apply for an individual permit instead of the general permit being reviewed now for the stormwater management plan.

“The Town of New Milford filed this petition out of grave concern for the potential negative impact this solar power project could have on a sensitive area of Candlewood Mountain and on the town’s environment and its citizens broadly,” Daniel Casagrande, the attorney representing the town said in a press release.

The petition also calls the current plan “wholly inadequate.”

The Connecticut Siting Council approved the solar project in December 2017. The 60,000 solar panels would be owned and operated by Ameresco Inc., an energy company based in Massachusetts. They are expected to generate 20 megawatts of power.

The town and several environmental groups argue in the petition and letters sent to DEEP this week that the special or individual permit is needed because the project would remove 54 acres of dense core fores, which elevates the impact of the project on the land and waters there.

“This project requires and deserves a higher level of public scrutiny than that afforded by the general permit process since it will have such widespread, adverse impacts on public resources, including potential impacts to the waters of the state due to dramatic changes in the land cover from the extensive clearing,” Paul Elconin, director of land conservation for the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, wrote to DEEP.

The project has been controversial among residents and environmental groups because it will clear cut about 80 acres of forest on Candlewood Mountain, which is a rural area and used for hiking, as well as serves as a habitat for a variety of species. It is also near an airport and some pilots worry the potential glare from the panels could be dangerous.

Advocates of the project say the clean energy is needed and it would also translate to revenue for the town.

The crux of the debate is the dilemma of green energy v. preserving green spaces, which is seen across the state. This caused the General Assembly to pass a law that requires the Siting Council to deliberate this as part of the process, but the application was filed a few days before the law went into effect in 2017 and so the project is exempt.

“We support rapid development of solar power,” Margaret Miner, executive director for the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut wrote. “Clean energy leads to cleaner waters. Unfortunately this project is sited in a highly sensitive environmental area, and the stormwater plan poses clear risks to the state’s waters and obligate species.”

New Milford has already opposed the project before the Siting Council and several groups and people are appealing the approval in Superior Court. The town has also removed the tax incentives for the project, which were approved by the previous administration. The town is now asking to be a party or intervenor for the permit.

“The town believes that the proposed project will or may unreasonably destroy or impair the public trust in the natural resources of the state,” Casagrande wrote.

The stormwater management plan is essentially the last hurdle before the company can begin construction.

The Housatonic Valley Association also sent a letter of support for the stricter requirements.

“The negative impact on water quality, both during clearing and construction and subsequent to the installation of this massive industrial energy project on what is now a mostly wooded, steeply sloping mountain in close proximity to the Housatonic River, is unacceptably high,” Tim Abbot, HVA’s regional land conservation and greenprint director wrote.

Abbott adds that the current plans would harm the wetlands there, especially the vernal pools and habitats for rare species. He said it would also cause sediment to enter the river faster.

The environmental groups and New Milford are also asking the public comment period be extended to 90 days from the 15 days it is now. They said the current period isn’t enough time to review and comment on the 393 page technical document.

Elconin also refutes the claim Candlewood Solar has made throughout the process that it will donate 100 acres to a conservation organization to offset.

“Currently, there is no written or verbal agreement between any conservation organization and the applicant or the property owner to conserve any portion of the property before, during, or after construction,” he wrote.

kkoerting@newstimes.com; 203-731-3345